Neuromancer cover

by William Gibson, 1984.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So opens William Gibson's debut novel, and it is to his eternal credit that we all still remember the line now, nearly forty years later. I don't usually do audiobooks, but I made an exception for this.

The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.

Unlike the majority of the beloved science fiction of my youth, Gibson's poetic, literary style has only increased in my estimation over the subsequent decades.

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. By children, being taught mathematical concepts. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

The consensual hallucination might seem prosaic now, but one has to remember this was written back when the internet connected less than 1,000 hosts, accessed via green screen text terminals on university campuses.

He'd made the classic mistake, the one he'd sworn he'd never make. He stole from his employers. [...] Of course he was welcome, they told him, welcome to the money. And he was going to need it. Because — still smiling — they were going to make sure he never worked again. They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin. Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours. The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.

He introduced the world to cyberpunk, combining the fatalistic noire of Blade Runner with the relentless dehumanizing advances of a libertarian tech dystopia, to create a startlingly original warning of our possible future that looks, as the decades tumble by, increasingly on-the-nose.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he'd still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void... The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.

There are several versions of Neuromancer as an audiobook. The slightly abridged six-hour version available for free at the Internet Archive is notable for two things: it is read by William Gibson himself, and it is an extremely low quality rip from an audiocassette.

Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself. Like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Biz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol.

The audio quality might make anyone immediately pass this version by. It isn't just noisy, but features discernible wow and flutter - artifacts characteristic of the stretching or uneven speed of its original tape based media.

He closed his eyes. Found the ridged face of the power stud. And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiled in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like a film compiled of random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information. Please, he prayed, now- A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky. Now- Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of the military systems, forever beyond his reach. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.

But I'd urge you to stick with it. For the author's reedy, Virginia-inflected voice has a cadence that holds the attention. A rhythm of tone and emphasis that, for me, works considerably better than the practiced glossiness of more recent, more professional recordings.

"The moment, I mean the nanosecond, that one of those things starts figuring out ways to make itself smarter, Turing’ll wipe it. Nobody trusts those fuckers, you know that. Every AI ever built has an electromagnetic shotgun wired to its forehead."

By the end of the second chapter, I'd stopped being bothered by the audio quality, and by chapter three, it had become an intrinsic part of the experience.

It was disturbing to think of the Flatline as a construct, a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions, kneejerk responses.
He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in. It was exactly the sensation of someone reading over his shoulder. He coughed.
"Dix? McCoy? That you man?' His throat was tight.
"Hey, bro," said a directionless voice.
"It's Case, man. Remember?"
"Miami, joeboy, quick study."
"What's the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?"
"Hang on." He disconnected the construct. The presence was gone. He reconnected it. "Dix? Who am I?"
"You got me hung, Jack. Who the fuck are you?"
"Remember being here, a second ago?"
"Know how a ROM personality matrix works?"
"Sure, bro, it's a firmware construct."
"So I jack it into the bank I'm using, I can give it sequential, real time memory?"
"Guess so," said the construct.
"Okay, Dix. You are a ROM construct. Got me?"
"If you say so," said the construct. "Who are you?"
"Miami," said the voice, "joeboy, quick study."
"Right. And for starts, Dix, you and me, we're gonna sleaze over to London grid and access a little data. You game for that?"
"You gonna tell me I got a choice, boy?"

A distortion so thoroughly appropriate to the underlying material it was as though Gibson had planned it this way all along, speaking directly to me via a weak signal, projected through time by the noisy filters of this obsolete electro-mechanical recording mechanism. The words at once clear and irrevocably decayed, fuzzy sounding but still stark and unmistakable in their meaning.

"You ever try to crack an AI?"
"Sure. I flatlined. First time. I was larkin', jacked up real high, out by Rio heavy commerce sector. Big biz, multinationals, Government of Brazil lit up like a Christmas tree. Just larkin' around, you know? And then I started picking up on this one cube, maybe three levels higher up. Jacked up there and made a pass."
"What did it look like, the visual?"
"White cube."
"How'd you know it was an AI?"
"How'd I know? Jesus. It was the densest ice I'd ever seen. So what else was it? The military down there don't have any thing like that. Anyway, I jacked out and told my computer to look it up."
"It was on the Turing Registry. AI. Frog company owned its Rio mainframe."
Case chewed his lower lip and gazed out across the plateaus of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, into the infinite neuroelectronic void of the matrix. "Tessier-Ashpool, Dixie?"
"Tessier, yeah."
"And you went back?"
"Sure. I was crazy. Figured I'd try to cut it. Hit the first strata and that's all she wrote. My joeboy smelled the skin frying and pulled the trodes off me. Mean shit, that ice."
"And your EEG was flat."
"Well, that's the stuff of legend, ain't it?'

Five out of five stars. A riveting performance.